A&A: City Records–what does the CPRA say on security, period of retention, availability?

Q: I’m investigating a lax building code and the permitting procedures of my city’s Building Department, for several specific examples.

I have examples, where there is ongoing construction and periodic remodeling done, without original permits or follow up ! The remodeling is incremental but , the accumulation, of ad-on, over the years is substantial!

The request was sent to the City Clerk who was identified as the CPRA spoke person. There is a good indication of an under the table “pay-off.”

I have sent a CPRA request for a specific location and documentation, covering a span of years. The CPRA request, would have included (my) current emails of inquiry, so I know , that they are in the file. In return, I received only a smattering of disconnected documents, none of which reflected a proper, organizational procedure of building record keeping. In a personal, verbal exchange it was suggested that the records were assigned to various departments as to their relevance and the possibility that they were lost

Enough records, were excluded, that there is a larger indication, that the records purposely withheld, than of being lost.

As a question: What prevents a government from using the excuse of “lost,” in every request for government documents, requested? Unavailable documents, are unavailable, right?

For a simple request of accountability for … normal office procedure … is there some simpler course of action, than a court proceeding ? Small Claims court ?

A: It sounds like you believe the agency here has records in its possession that are responsive to your Public Records Act request, but that it is not searching for and/or producing based on its contention that these records are lost, and you would like to bring a lawsuit to compel the agency to produce these records.

The PRA provides a mechanism, found in Gov’t Code § 6259, for such lawsuits, which are typically filed in Superior Court in the county in which the agency is located, and are initiated by a verified petition (i.e., a request filed under oath) that asks the court to issue a writ of mandate, which is a type of order directing the public agency to take a specified action.  Attorneys’ fees are available to a plaintiff who prevails in litigation filed pursuant to the Act, Gov’t Code § 6259(d).  You can find more information on FAC’s website at Access to Public Records

Bryan  Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries.  In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.